Reduce, Reuse, THEN Recycle

In elementary or middle school, you may have learned about the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. A lot of attention is given to recycling in order to reduce carbon emissions and conserve natural resources; however, there are still significant environmental costs associated with recycling. For example, recycling trucks that pick up curbside recycling use fossil fuels, and a lot of energy is used to sort, distribute, and then transform recyclables into new products.  

In addition, at the beginning of 2018, China stopped accepting the world’s waste including plastic, paper, and textiles. The US had been sending massive amounts of its recyclables to China, but now our recycling system is overwhelmed, and we have nowhere to put this waste.

bales of recyclables at our material recovery facility
Bales of recyclables seen by PBAs on a tour of a Material Recovery Facility

You have probably heard about the harms that plastic pollution has on sea creatures, such as plastic straws and bags endangering the lives of sea turtles. But, did you know that plastic waste floods into the countries that aren’t prepared to stop it, or manage it? In Southeast Asian countries including Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Indonesia, plastic waste severely impacts the people who live there when it is burned producing toxic gasses. To make matters worse, these communities often do not have the money or government support to protect them from these situations.

Corporations profit wildly from selling items in single-use plastic packaging while peddling the myth of recycling as a solution. In the hierarchy of waste reduction, reducing and reusing should come first while recycling is a last resort before the landfill or incineration, but corporations benefit from the prevalent culture of consumerism that drives people to prioritize recycling so that they can keep consuming at the same rate. The most effective way to reduce waste is to not create it in the first place. The end goal is to stop the production of single-use plastics (the EU approved a ban on single-use plastic, Queensland is moving to ban it as well, and, even in the US, there has been talk of a possible ban,) but while we wait for this to happen, it is important for you to take action by reducing your consumption, reusing whenever you can, and advocating for policies that can meaningfully reduce waste production.

To prioritize reducing and reusing, rethink what you buy and ask yourself if you have something already that could fill a need. Don’t feel compelled to buy more in hopes of mimicking the ‘glamorous’ zero-waste lifestyle portrayed on YouTube or Instagram. For instance, you don’t need to purchase reusable bamboo travel cutlery if you already have reusable silverware at home. These acts of reducing what you buy and reusing what you have will actually save you money too!

Try instead to do things like:

  • Shopping in bulk. You can even bring your own bags and storage for items such as dried fruits, nuts, cereal, rice, beans, and spices.
  • Avoiding styrofoam takeout boxes. You can bring your own reusable food-storage containers for left-overs.
  • Buying unpackaged food products. Grab those loose bundles of spinach in favor of the one in the plastic bag. 
  • Bringing your reusable shopping bags. If you do accept a single-use plastic bag, think of ways that you can extend its usage by using it as a shower cap or garbage bag. 
  • Making your own eco-friendly products. Most cleaners and toiletries are a combination of baking soda, vinegar, and essential oils. You can reuse jars and other items to store them in.
  • Skipping disposable water bottles in favor of a reusable one.
  • Switching to paperless billing. If you pair this with automatic payments, this can also help you save time and not miss any payments helping to build up your credit score.
  • Renting, borrowing, sharing, or buying used. Before buying something new, check out Facebook groups or many other places online where people sell or trade pre-owned items.
  • Maintaining and repairing your belongings before buying new.
  • Try upcycling old items or donating them.
  • Bringing your own coffee cup. Did you know that 50 billion single-use coffee cups get thrown away each year in the US? Even though these cups are mostly paper, they are often lined with polyethylene, which means that they cannot be recycled! That’s a lot of cups going to the landfill. Some places even give a discount for bringing your own mug!
  • Prioritizing experiences over things. Instead of gifting an Amazon gift card, consider a fitness class pass, museum tours, or a pottery class!

Lastly, it can be hard to make these changes and stick to them if you are used to an old routine. Remember to challenge what is convenient and make the conscious decision to reject the single-use lifestyle that is marketed to us. Mindfulness is a meditation and well-being practice that focuses on purposefully bringing attention to your experiences and present moment. This practice is often embraced by the sustainability community in the form of mindful consumption. We are often disconnected from where our products come from and where they go when we are done with them. Living intentionally means becoming more aware of what is essential to you and developing compassion for how the products you purchase affect your own and others’ environments.

Keep learning with these resources:


What items have you found to be the hardest to remove from the waste stream? Has it been more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic? Let your fellow Planet Blue Ambassadors know in the comments below.

1 thought on “Reduce, Reuse, THEN Recycle”

  1. I’ve definitely produced more waste during COVID-19, particularly from ordering food for pick-up rather than eating out at restaurants! Many of the containers I do sanitize and try to reuse, but I don’t know that I could ever use all the Madras Masala and Cardamom containers I have…. If anyone’s organizing their garage and needs a bunch of smaller containers for nails, screws, bolts, etc. Let me know!

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